Back-End Blues: Hiring a Production Manager

If you’re used to hiring sales and marketing people all the time, what do you do when you need a new production manager?

August 21, 2015
Production manager reviewing plans with client

Bill Chase, owner of Hi-Tech Window & Siding Installations, in Methuen, Mass., once wore a lot of hats. After the 2008–2010 recession, with sales way off and overhead cut to nothing, Chase managed marketing and sales as well as “the back end,” that is, production, at his Boston-area siding and window company. He also ran leads. When sales began picking up again, the company owner had to make a decision about which of those hats he wanted to hand to someone else. It wasn’t hard. He hired a production manager, and with that, says he “gave up the phone calls, the hassles, the headaches, that went along with that job.”

Bob Quillen, owner of Quillen Bros. Windows, in Bryan, Ohio, had a similar problem. A little more than a year ago, his production manager left to work for a competitor, and soon four production employees departed to join him there. Quillen had to scramble to hire a production manager, even while his company was posting big sales gains and had opened a branch operation 60 miles down the road, in Fort Wayne, Ind. “I lost my whole back end,” Quillen says. Selling jobs you can’t install is a nightmare for home improvement company owners, and finding the right production manager, Quillen realized, isn’t easy.

All-Purpose Traffic Manager

Part of the difficulty arises because production tends to be taken for granted. In almost 30 years in business, either in executive positions for other companies, or managing his own, Quillen had hired a lot of sales guys. As far as hiring a production manager for Quillen Bros., “this is only my third one in 16 years,” he says—and one of those production managers he hired lasted 14 years.

That wouldn’t surprise Grant Mazmanian, CEO of Pinnacle Group International, a Media, Pa., executive recruiter specializing in home improvement. Production managers are loyal, he says. They tend to stay. So you may not often have the need, or opportunity, to replace them. Company owners are far more likely to need to hire for sales, marketing, or admin positions. So if you’re not thoroughly familiar with what the job entails, and have no clear sense of the type of person who could fill it, you could easily end up making a hiring mistake.

Chase says that three qualities are essential in a candidate when looking to fill the production manager position: organizational skills, installation experience, and the kind of personality that’s likeable enough to get along with crews and finesse homeowners. “Organizational skills are the most important,” he says, “because things can get really messy in a hurry” when jobs aren’t properly tracked or when homeowners or company management aren’t communicated with.

That’s something Jeff Moeslein, CEO of Legacy Remodeling, in Pittsburgh, found out when his father, who’d been filling in on that job, retired and Moeslein hired a production manager. A plan for that transition was in place, but the plan unraveled. “He had good production skills and a good mind for putting things together,” Moeslein recalls. “But, if he had a problem, he wouldn’t share that with us. And I would end up with an angry [homeowner] on the phone.”

Get ’Er Done

All three of those qualities should be present in any candidate, Mazmanian agrees, but to successfully hire a production manager (that is, long-term) look for what he calls “urgency,” that is, people who have “eyes in the back of their head.” You want someone who is always aware of what’s going on around them and who thinks in the future.

How would you know? Ask situational questions. Have candidates explain how they would handle challenging situations. So, for instance, if that roofing job’s scheduled to be finished tomorrow and it’s going to rain tomorrow, the really good production manager finds a way to offer the crew a bonus if it gets the job done by the end of the day today. And he does that kind of thing day in and day out.

Mazmanian also points out that if you want more than a so-so production manager, hire someone who is not only committed to getting things done, but to finding ways to make you money, or save you money. After Tom Capizzi, owner of Capizzi Home Improvement, in Cotuit, Mass., hired new production manager Jim McCormack last year, he had McCormack shadow the company’s other two production managers for a week. Generating revenue from change orders is an important part of the PM job at Capizzi Home Improvement, and a new production manager has to be familiar with how that’s done. Having him shadow other production managers, Capizzi says, “enabled the new PM to witness the entire job. Writing change orders, doing re-measure appointments, calling homeowners, reading through proposals, making sure the pricing is right, then visiting jobsites.” McCormack also sat in on the company’s twice-a-month Total Quality Management meetings, where sales and production together review each job, and in separate all-sales and all-production meetings. “We educate people early in what we expect them to do,” Capizzi says. Put the energy in up front if you want a successful, long-term production manager.

The Essentials

If you find yourself in need of a new production manager, here are the essential qualities to look for in hiring:

  • Installation skills: The production manager has to know if the job is correctly installed, can recognize if shortcuts have been taken that compromise the integrity of the work, etc.
  • Industry knowledge: he PM should be someone with enough experience that he or she is familiar with products, procedures, and factory paperwork.
  • People skills: “I want someone who has good posture, industry knowledge, and good communication skills,” Quillen says, so that you can “send them out to people who are upset and they calm them right down.” His next, successful, PM hire, had these.
  • Organizational skills: That is, the discipline to manage existing systems and imagination to create new ones. For instance, making sure that all products specified are on the jobsite when work begins is essential. Someone not used to managing the myriad details of multiple jobs can quickly be overwhelmed, then frustrated to the point where all motivation disappears.
  • Follow-through ability: Customer calls not returned poison potential future relationships. Tracking details and communication to resolution needs to be a habit.
  • Crew management: This is an important piece, Chase says, especially if you’re using subcontractor crews, now heavily in demand. You want someone who not only interacts well with crews and can comfortably establish standards and priorities, but who is also an excellent liaison between customers and crews.

Needing a production manager is sometimes an education for home improvement company owners, who discover that that position should never be taken for granted. Chase says that the two production managers he’s now hired—one for windows, one for siding—have freed up his time to plan for future growth. “I bought myself some focus,” he says, “and some peace of mind, by doing this.”

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Philadelphia-based freelance writer Jim Cory specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him with comments or story ideas at coryjim@earthlink.net.

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